Title: Oryx and Crake
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #1
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Virago Press (my edition)
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic
Source: own copy
This is the first time I’m giving a book a 10/10 rating on Violin in a Void. While I’ve reviewed excellent books that could rival this one, I’ve reserved the highest rating for books that also make excellent re-reads. I think the best books are those that won’t fade with familiarity but actually become more enjoyable as you get to know them better. Oryx and Crake is the first such book that I’ve reviewed.
That said, it’s incredibly bleak, and I’d forgotten exactly how dark it gets. But while it scares and horrifies me, it’s also such a pleasure to read because of the elegance of Atwood’s writing and the sophistication of her vision. The narrative is split into two future time periods that also happen to fall into two sub genres – post-apocalyptic and dystopian. In the post-apocalyptic narrative a man named Snowman is a lone survivor of a global catastrophe for which he holds his friend Crake responsible. In his loneliness, he imagines the voice of his lover Oryx teasing and comforting him. But like Crake, Oryx is long gone. Snowman lives in a tree, wraps himself in old bedsheets, and scavenges meagre supplies from the remains of human civilisation. He is also the increasingly unnecessary guardian of the Crakers, a race of bio-engineered post-humans designed by Crake to inherit a ravaged earth.
The story of how this all came to be is told in the non-linear dystopian narrative, beginning when Snowman was a child named Jimmy. His world – our future – is characterised by bio-engineering, artificial food, extinction, climate change and environmental destruction. Great advances in medicine are matched by the creation of catastrophic viruses. The scientists who work for giant bio-engineering corporations live privileged lives in highly secure-compounds designed to save them from ever having to go out into the disease-ridden ‘pleeblands’ where the masses live.
As Atwood herself has said, “Every novel begins with a what if“ and for Oryx and Crake she asked “What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?” (Curious Pursuits, 2003, p.323). The questions are primarily ecological, and the answer to the first one is the dystopia where Jimmy’s story begins. The answer to the last questions is: Crake.
We first encounter him as a creepy child, a genius who seems to be studying everyone, who hides his feelings, and has secret plans that Jimmy never fully understands even when he’s caught up in the aftermath as Snowman. Oryx, the woman he loves, is similarly elusive, and somehow they’re both a part of the ruined world he lives in now.
Because he’s a “word person”, Snowman turns Oryx and Crake into myth for the Crakers. They are the Children of Crake, and the animals are the Children of Oryx, respected and never eaten. With the world reverting to its natural state, the Crakers give the impression of return to Eden, to paradise – they’re incredibly innocent without any violent tendencies or any knowledge of the world before. They’re also pretty damn weird. Crake designed them with myriad animal traits to keep them close to nature and avoid violent conflict. They wear no clothes (their skin is thick and UV-resistant), they eat leaves, purr like cats to heal injuries (yes, cats’ purring can do that). They’re designed to be free from lust, jealousy, racism and religion. The Crakers are basically Crake’s attempt to fix everything that was wrong with the human race and then make his own improvements on the basic design. It’s really interesting to see how he’s played god here.
Snowman of course, is stuck with the original design and isn’t suited to the world humanity has so badly damaged. This post-apocalyptic world of Atwood’s is more subtle than others I’ve read. Snowman simply finds himself at the mercy of the natural world as it consumes a dead civilisation. He sleeps in a tree to stay safe from predators. Because of climate change, he must to take shelter from the unbearably hot sun and daily storm. Things he probably never thought much about have become serious dangers or annoyances – ants, bug bites, sweating, starving to death. Simply scratching open a scab might lead to serious infection. Loneliness is driving him mad, and he finds little company among the strange Crakers.
The post-apocalyptic world is in many ways a version of the dystopia that led to it. While Snowman fears nature, Jimmy grew up in a world where humanity destroys and modifies nature. Jimmy’s father works for OrganInc, a company that creates pigoons – bio-engineered pigs that grow skin, organs and even brain tissue for human transplants. After the apocalypse however, the pigoons roam free. They could tear Snowman to shreds and eat him, and they’re extremely smart because of the human brain tissue they were designed to produce. Equally dangerous are the wolvogs – vicious wolves designed to look like friendly dogs.
The food that Jimmy eats is often pretty gross and almost always artificial. Dairy products seem to be a thing of the past, and you get crap like “cheese food” instead. There are the disgusting “Chickie-Nobs”, a kind of bland KFC-style junk food made from bio-engineered ‘chickens’ that are just fat bodies with mouths. No heads, beaks or feet because none of those things are needed to produce meat. Often when natural foods like real eggs, fish or meat appear, it’s described as a rare and expensive luxury. On the other hand, rainforests are destroyed to grow Happi Cuppa coffee.
Equally revolting is the media that Crake and Jimmy consume. They don’t watch movies and TV series, but watch videos online – animal snuff, assisted suicides, executions, child pornography. Disturbingly, none of this seems to be considered particularly abnormal. Two teenage boys watching hundreds of hours of real executions and kiddie porn is portrayed like two teenage boys watching normal TV and a bit of porn today.
Jimmy only pauses to consider what he’s doing when he first sees Oryx. At the time she has no name, she’s “just another little girl on a porno site” (103). But she turns to the camera and Jimmy imagines that she looks at him with contempt. For years, Jimmy is haunted by the look on her face and the way she seems to judge him.
It’s appropriate that the first feeling Oryx evokes in Jimmy is a kind of moral shock. While most of the novel reveals the environmental consequences of problems like overpopulation, Oryx is a testament to the more human side – stark poverty, trafficking, child abuse. After Jimmy has met Oryx and started sleeping with her, she tells him her life story – how she was sold into slavery by a mother who couldn’t afford to keep her and went from selling flowers to tourists, to following men into their hotel rooms, and then onto the kind of child pornography where Jimmy and Crake first saw her.
This is disturbing stuff, although Oryx tells it in a gentle matter-of-fact way that makes it easier on everyone. Jimmy actually doesn’t like this, because, in his opinion, she’s too forgiving of the men involved. She feels sorry for some for being so pathetic, she’s grateful to her pimp for looking after her, she giggled at men’s penises because she thought they looked funny. This is not what Jimmy wants to hear, “all this sweetness and acceptance and crap”. He wants her to cry, to say how traumatic it was, and to hate the men who abused her so that she can be the victim and he can be her saviour. And that bothers me about him.
But honestly, I don’t know how to feel about Oryx’s character either. She’s so elusive I can’t quite grasp her. Then again, my feelings about the other characters can never be simple either. Crake is both monstrous and admirable. I find him hateful at first, but out of all the characters, he’s the only one who both expresses anger at what humans are doing to the world, and actually manages to do something about it.
Jimmy is our connection to the story (he’s a “word person”, ideal for the job), and there are many reasons to empathise with him, especially when we see how neglectful his parents are. His mother is deeply depressed, agonising over the ethics of the work she and her husband have done. You might identify with his, while hating her for the way she treats her young son. Which leads you to feel sorry for Jimmy, but then he also watches child pornography. The thing is, he’s probably the character most similar to you as the reader – an ordinary person, who just gets swept along in the habits of society, no matter how repulsive those are. Jimmy/Snowman is not someone who will change the world or even oppose it.
The world does get changed however, and you could argue a great deal about the ethics that go into that, into genetic engineering, and the design of the Crakers. Will our extinction be the only thing that stops us murdering our world? Are the Crakers a better kind of human? Would you call them human at all? Is it ok for Crake to play god by creating them, or for any of the scientists to splice together species or grow human organs and brains in pigs and then eat them? Atwood leaves you with a thousand things to think about and not all of it is bad – there’s a lot of science that’s just really awesome. Still, the results of Atwood’s what ifs are so plausible it’s terrifying. Few novels have hit me as hard as Oryx and Crake does with its vision of the future, it’s exquisite writing, and unforgettable characters. I will read this again, and again.
Ideally, I’d also like to say that everyone should read this book, but I know it’s not for every reader. While I take great pleasure from it, it’s not a fun book in any way, and it’d be completely wasted on readers only looking for entertainment. I find that it’s a smooth, easy read, but at the same time this is very much literary sci fi that deserves your attention, not just something you can breeze through.
If you’re a serious science fiction fan who enjoys the genre for its ideas and its vision, you can’t not read this. And I don’t give a crap what Atwood says about this not being true sci fi – it is. It’s some of the best sci fi I’ve ever read. Books like this are why I love this genre, why I love fiction, why I love reading.